Dental clinic moving forward

J. H. Osborne • Mar 20, 2007 at 2:03 AM

BLOUNTVILLE - The Sullivan County Regional Health Department will move forward with plans to open a dental clinic for children at its Kingsport office.

The Sullivan County Commission voted Monday to direct health department officials to proceed "as soon as possible" with the previously budgeted expansion.

There were no "no" votes.

The health department originally planned to have the Kingsport dental clinic up and running by May, Health Department Director Gary Mayes said.

That plan was sidetracked earlier this year after county officials began to receive objections to the dental clinic from a private dental practice in Kingsport.

Dentists Angel and Clayton Mullins, who are married, have complained to county officials that expansion of the health department's dental services for children threatens their private practice, Watauga Dental Center, on Watauga Street.

Angel Mullins attended the Sullivan County Commission's monthly meeting last month to bring attention to the couple's opposition to the health department's plan to provide dental care for children at the department's Kingsport office.

The health department offers dental care to children on TennCare and to those who pay cash.

Angel and Clayton Mullins say they and their partners opened Watauga Dental Center in May 2006 to serve the same population - and that the practice can provide dental care to the children in question.

On Monday, Angel Mullins again spoke to commissioners to protest the health department's dental clinic opening in Kingsport. She told commissioners the health department's children's dental clinic is not needed in Kingsport.

She said the dental needs of children on TennCare or a cash-pay basis are being adequately met by the private sector.

Mullins complained that the health department does not provide dental care to indigent children - those whose families can't pay anything and don't have insurance.

She said she believed some commissioners had been voicing support for the health department's expansion into Kingsport based on a mistaken belief that indigent care would be provided.

She said Watauga Dental Center has openings every day - and, like other private practices in the area, has on occasion provided limited indigent care.

"We can't openly say we're going to (provide indigent care)," Mullins said. "We'd go under."

Mayes confirmed that the health department's children's dental clinic does not provide indigent care - because of a County Commission mandate that the clinic be self-supporting.

"The County Commission said our clinic would have to close if we didn't meet expenses," Mayes said.

The health department's children's dental clinic stays booked about three months in advance, and sometimes it takes days for its patients to secure even an emergency visit, Mayes said.

And the health department has a hard time finding local dentists to take emergency cases any quicker, he said.

During earlier discussions of the issue, several commissioners said they agree government shouldn't hamper private practices - but the county's foremost concern should be making sure the dental care is accessible to the county's children who need it.

This year's county budget includes funding intended to expand the health department's children's dental clinic program by adding more personnel and space. Mayes said the additional funding - about $183,000 - was to add a chair to the dental clinic's Blountville location, and for the first time place two chairs at the health department's Kingsport office at Wilcox Drive and East Sullivan Street.

The health department's dental program serves patients up to but not including the age of 21.

Last May, when the County Commission was first looking at the proposed expansion of services, the dental clinic had averaged 270 appointments per month since it opened Aug. 30, 2004, Mayes said.

The health department operates two medical offices - one in Blountville and one in downtown Kingsport. The current dental clinic is in an annex near the Blountville medical office.

Dental care has been identified by the health department as the number one health care need in the county.

For more information about the Sullivan County Regional Health Department visit www.sullivanhealth.org.

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